SHOULD A COMPANY BE ABLE TO OWN YOUR GENES? MORLEY SAFER EXAMINES THE CONTROVERSY OVER GENE PATENTS ON SUNDAY'S "60 MINUTES"
This Week's Court Ruling Against a Gene Patent Poses a Setback for Biotech Firms
Biotech companies have patented 10,000 human genes in their efforts to profit from the keys to disease prevention and cure many of them hold. But the idea of private ownership of things produced inside the human body is coming under scrutiny and a recent lawsuit struck a blow against it. A law professor tells Morley Safer it's just plain wrong in a 60 MINUTES report to be broadcast Sunday, April 4 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.
"It's as if the first surgeon who took a kidney out of your body then patented the kidney," says Lori Andrews, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. Patent law was really intended to "reward inventors who brought something new into the world," she tells Safer.
Andrews is particularly bothered by Myriad Genetics' patenting of the human gene for breast cancer. It won a race to identify the gene in 1994, patented the discovery, and since then has controlled completely the testing process for the gene. "In this case, Myriad owns breast cancer," says Andrews.
The situation bothers Lisbeth Ceriani even more. Diagnosed with breast cancer at age 42, doctors felt her age factor indicated her disease was hereditary - a scenario, if proven true, that would make her up to 40-times more likely to get ovarian cancer, too. She should be tested for the gene to determine whether her ovaries should be removed for preventative reasons. But Ceriani found out while seeking the test that Myriad not only exclusively owns the test to find that gene, but can reject patients' insurance. Since her insurance only pays a portion of the $3,120 test fee, Myriad will not accept it. "I don't have the $3,200 for that test," says Ceriani. "After all the research I...learned that Myriad is the only game in town and they want it all," she tells Safer. "No one invented my gene. They didn't change or alter it. All they're doing is looking at it - it's crazy," says Ceriani.
A federal judge agreed this week, siding with the American Civil Liberties Union in a suit against Myriad. The judge wrote that the patents on the breast cancer genes were improperly granted because human genes are the product of nature.
Patent ownership of the gene and the high cost of testing for it are necessary to pay for the science that located the gene in the first place and reward those whose investments made it possible, says Kevin Noonan, a molecular biologist and patent lawyer. "You're not only paying that $3,000 for this particular test, but how many years did people try to find this gene and not succeed?" asks Noonan. "Whether it's cars or health, there has to be a profit," he tells Safer. Watch an excerpt.
Myriad declined an interview, but told 60 MINUTES in a statement that its patents have greatly enhanced women's health and that the company encourages research. It plans to appeal the federal court ruling.